The Department of Defense’s Joint Artificial Intelligence Center is working on a series of new vehicles to buy AI, as soon as it has the authority to do so.
The new vehicles are a combination of two traditional contracts within the boundaries of the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) and an Other Transaction Authority (OTA)-type contract that allows for faster purchases. The JAIC doesn’t yet have acquisition authority, but the fiscal 2021 National Defense Authorization Act, currently in draft form, has provisions to allow the center to make purchases when signed into law.
The two FAR-based contracts will focus on data services and testing and evaluation services, according to the JAIC. The OTA-modeled contract will be set up to buy AI capabilities. JAIC set up the vehicles with assistance from the General Services Administration, the agency that has helped the center with its large purchases in the past.
Prior to this, the JAIC has worked with existing contract vehicles and schedules to begin fielding AI for the DOD, including recent acquisitions to help build the DOD’s AI development platform, the Joint Common Foundation. But the DOD decided it needed something different moving forward acquiring the emerging technology, officials said.
“A lot of DOD offices are just more comfortable ordering from a FAR-based vehicle,” said Will Roberts, JAIC’s head of acquisition. But for small companies offering AI capabilities, “we wanted to be able to have direct access,” he added. OTAs give the DOD the authority to sidestep traditional acquisition requirements to speed up pilot procurements with nontraditional technology providers.
Before his retirement as the inaugural director of the JAIC, Lt. Gen. Jack Shanahan said the JAIC needed its own acquisition authority to keep pace with the fast-moving AI industry. He warned that the JAIC would be far behind within the next two years without the ability to ink AI deals, he said in May.
Roberts added that the new vehicles add AI-specific speed to the usual slow defense contracting process.
The new contracts are also “designed to be a generalized acquisition contract that we have standardized to terms so that anyone across the DOD can actually use that,” Nand Mulchandani, the acting director of the JAIC, said during a press conference Thursday.
The JAIC is also working on Tradewind, a new business model prototype that includes an online collaboration portal for industry and academia to communicate with the JAIC on project status, connect into the Joint Common Foundation and work with other partners on “team arranging.”
“We want to use this portal so we can get information from industry,” Roberts said.
The idea behind the portal appears to be similar to project tracking services like Asana but with many more government-specific features. New JAIC-specific requests for information notices could be posted in the Tradewind portal along with policy and informational notices that contractors should know about.
The portal is still in ideation, and the JAIC hopes to award a contract for the building of the environment by summer 2021, according to slides presented by Roberts.
Another key use of Tradewind will be creating industry consortiums. Industry-to-industry communications will also be facilitated through the portal, Mulchandani said.
“One of the key aspects of it is transparency,” Mulchandani said. “As a part of Tradewind, we will be building an online portal that will allow industry partners to create self-services and to interact with the DOD and the JAIC through this online portal.”
Mulchandani said that he hopes the vehicles and portal will be re-usable tools and ideas for other parts of the DOD to “lower the bar” to work with for industry.